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Feature

Civic Sequels

Small towns finding flickers of former vitality after reviving downtown movie theaters

Main Street in Childress, an eclectic mix of commercial buildings and renovations from overlapping eras, begs for revitalization. The historic brick streets downtown speak to the rustic character of the central business district. The availability of parking on them speaks to the meager level of commerce being conducted.

Downtown Childress might seem lonely, but it’s not alone. This could be most any small town in Texas.

But stop right here. Rewind. Keep going back—at least a generation. OK, now hit “Play.”

A little more bustle on those bricks. And the main attraction, you might say, is the Palace, Childress’ downtown movie theater.

“The current Palace dominated Main Street for more than 50 years, beginning in 1937,” says Judy Johnson, a volunteer with the Palace Restoration Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing the theater back to the prominence it once enjoyed as the center of entertainment for Childress and the surrounding area.

Fast-forward to the present.

The Palace sits near the south end of North Main Street, its newly painted white facade facing west and a multicolored neon sign lighting up downtown Childress in a fashion not seen for nearly 20 years. Hundreds of townspeople showed up recently for a fundraising event that featured the classic movie musical “Grease.” The film was projected on the building’s exterior because the restoration is still in progress.

The vibrant theater makes a connection to a simpler era in Childress. A connection that, despite the passing of time and the lure of bigger cities, still has a place in small-town West Texas. For Johnson, it’s a personal connection.

“She is a monument to life and cinema: life in a small town in West Texas and cinema as a means of bringing the outside world to that small town,” Johnson says. “Restored, she can offer some of the simplicity, once taken for granted, to the many young families who now make Childress their home.”

Lifelong resident Shelly Breeding can relate. “We used to go to the Palace and watch the Walt Disney movies back in the 1970s when I was a kid,” she says. “As I got older, the Palace is where the high school kids went on dates. There wasn’t any hanging around town or driving around. You planned your week around what was playing at the show that weekend. Kids these days don’t have that luxury. At least not right now.”

Thirty miles north of Childress, the Ritz in Wellington recently underwent a complete restoration and now serves as the cinema and live entertainment hub for the town of 2,200 people. When the project started, the building was nearly beyond repair, and only the original walls remained. Over six years, the theater experienced an extreme transformation.

Greenbelt Electric Cooperative holds its annual meeting at the Ritz. The concession stand is opened for folks to get drinks, popcorn and candy. “Our members love it, and we always open the meeting with a Pink Panther cartoon,” says Greenbelt General Manager Stan McClendon.

“People all over the Panhandle and even the state have come to enjoy and admire the Ritz,” says Gay McAlister, a retired teacher and one of the organizers who helped nurse the dilapidated theater back to life through her vision and leadership.

The idea of restoration was actually put in place in 2001, when a group of citizens formed the committee, Historic Wellington, with the idea of restoring the Ritz and possibly other buildings, she says. Money came in from local groups, individuals and ex-students from all over the country who wanted this project done.

McAlister says it was not until 2004, when a local group, backed by a Wellington philanthropist, agreed to finance the cost that actual work on the building began. Although the restoration price was steep—$2.5 million—she says that the effort was worth it. Since its reopening in 2007, the Ritz has hosted live music, plays and first-run movies in the auditorium, which features historically inspired mission-style architecture while boasting a modern digital projection and sound system.

The auditorium, painted tan and accented with burgundy seats, has a reconstructed proscenium reminiscent of old theaters. The lobby is small, but the committee bought an adjacent building that serves as a meeting area. The space is smartly furnished and decorated with local photos and old movie posters.

“While we don’t have any concrete proof of it improving the economic state of our community, we feel it has,” says McAlister.

Like many small towns in Texas, Wellington’s downtown has seen better economic days and now is a mixture of occupied and empty storefronts wtih architecture that dates back to the early 20th century.

“Many young people have moved here, and they enjoy the Ritz for themselves and their children,” McAlister says. “So many out-of-town people coming here for shows and concerts helps our community.”

Economic development is a theme that underpins the need for restoring these small-town, historic theaters. Bringing the theaters back to life provides a much-needed boost to old central business districts, as the Panhandle town of Canadian discovered through the restoration of its theater.

“The theater continues to be a huge asset to our community,” says Tamera Julian, director of the Canadian Economic Development Corp. Julian describes downtown as being bleak 10 years ago, with every other building boarded up or dilapidated. The Palace Theater restoration, however, inspired the townspeople.

“At the time of its restoration, it provided a sense of hope to the community. The fact that someone was willing to reinvest in our community was an inspiration to many,” says Julian, referring to Salem Abraham, a Canadian native and successful futures trader who infused cash and business leadership into the theater and took it from oblivion to a state-of-the-art venue. The restoration, according to Julian, was just the spark that downtown Canadian needed.

“The theater restoration was the catalyst to many significant improvements to our downtown Main Street,” Julian says, describing the long central business district that straddles a single street, as opposed to the town square found in many towns. Along the street, small mercantile establishments, restaurants and business offices pepper the once-beleaguered downtown. The Palace Theater, with its modest, functional facade, sits on the block midway between the courthouse and U.S. Highway 83.

“Over the past 15 to 20 years now, almost every building on Main Street in Canadian has seen renovations, and all but one building, which is currently being renovated, is occupied,” says Julian.

In Childress, Judy Johnson hopes the same synergy returns to downtown once the theater restoration is complete. Now in her 60s and a lifelong resident of the Southeast Texas Panhandle town, she relates fond memories of the theater and how busy downtown used to be on weekends. She sees the theater as a spark to rekindle the magic she and others enjoyed in the past.

“Not too long ago, the completion of the restoration of the Palace was a very blurred vision in the distant future,” she says. However, that project has become more focused with numerous community backers. “I think completion of the Palace will make a ‘can-do’ statement about this wonderful town.”

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Russell A. Graves is an outdoor writer and photographer in Childress.